The National Science Foundation (NSF) has invested more than $60 million in the last 7 years into four major initiatives that investigate the connection between formal and informal science learning. In addition, a variety of smaller research and development projects across a range of NSF programs have studied this intersection.
By far the largest of these projects is the “Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center,” which seeks to understand and advance human learning through a simultaneous focus on implicit, informal, and formal learning. The goal of research conducted by the LIFE Center is to produce interdisciplinary theories that can guide the design of effective new learning technologies and environments. The LIFE Center brings together experts from research traditions that have so far tended to work separately from one another: neurobiology and psychology, social and cultural sciences, and science learning technologies. A central premise of the LIFE Center is that successful efforts to understand and propel learning require a simultaneous emphasis on informal and formal learning environments, and on the implicit ways in which people learn. The basic research at the LIFE Center is being conducted through three intersecting and multidisciplinary lines of inquiry. The first line, Implicit Learning and the Brain, investigates the underlying neural processes and principles associated with implicit forms of cognitive, linguistic, and social learning. The second line, Informal Learning, conducts studies of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning in informal settings to develop comprehensive and coordinated accounts of the cognitive, social, affective, and cultural dimensions that propel learning and development outside of schools. The third line, Designs for Formal Learning and Beyond, conducts experimental studies in support of designing high-quality learning environments, including theories and measures of transfer (i.e., the ability to utilize what has been learned in one setting, situation, or for one problem to another, related one). The $25 million project unites researchers from a variety of universities and nonprofit educational research centers.
In 2006, NSF funded a new initiative entitled Academies for Young Scientists (AYS). The NSF AYS Program funded 15 new projects across the United States, each designed to engage K-8 students to become or remain excited about STEM disciplines. Each of the individual projects is built on partnerships of formal and informal education providers, private-sector partners, and Colleges of Education to expose students to innovative out-of-school-time learning experiences that demonstrate effective synergies with in-school curricula and take full advantage of the special attributes of each educational setting in synergistic ways. While projects funded through NSF AYS differ considerably in their individual approaches and desired outcomes (beyond creating excitement and motivation in the youth participants), NSF also provided support for a Learning and Youth Research and Evaluation Center (LYREC) that compares the relative effectiveness of the various implementation models in urban, rural, and suburban settings representing diverse student populations. The NSF AYS portfolio of projects, taken as a whole, is designed to inform NSF and the broader educational community of what works and what does not, for whom, and in what setting. LYREC is a collaboration of the Exploratorium, Harvard University, Kings College London, SRI International, and University of California (UC) at Santa Cruz. LYREC provides technical assistance to NSF AYS